A child reacts to the camera while sitting on his father's back as they make their way in a flooded area in Bogra, Bangladesh, August 20, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
A child sits on his father's back as they make their way in a flooded area in Bogra, Bangladesh, on August 20, 2017. Rising sea levels and other problems blamed on climate change are affecting the region. Photo: Reuters / Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The heatwave effecting the subcontinent has brought climate change to the forefront of the minds of South Asian countries. In a part of the world that is already politically unstable, a changing climate presents an existential threat that the entire region will need to deal with to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

The heatwave across India and Pakistan is unprecedented. India is experiencing its hottest months since records began more than a hundred years ago, with New Delhi reaching a record of 49 degrees Celsius in May. The Pakistani city of Jacobabad hit 49 degrees, one of the highest April temperatures ever recorded on the planet.

It was also the driest March-to-May period for some time, with 71% and 62% less rainfall than average in India and Pakistan respectively. 

The Pakistani region of Balochistan has suffered through weeks of these temperatures, rare for this time of year, leading to people unable to live in their homes, work during the day and facing shortages of water. Electricity has also become scarce, with air-conditioners and refrigerators unable to be used for up to nine hours a day when the heat is at its worst.

The Pakistan Meteorological Department has reported that the heat has impacted agriculture, human and animal health and has triggered the melting of ice and snow in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkwa. The heatwave has also resulted in India’s yield of wheat dropping by as much as 50% in affected regions.

The high temperatures have arrived up to two months early and are undoubtably a result of a changing climate. This has meant that 1.5 billion people have two additional months to survive before the monsoons arrive. As it currently stands, up to 90 people in India and Pakistan have died because of the heatwave.

While India and Pakistan are currently experiencing hardship, this is a region-wide problem. 

South Asia is extremely vulnerable to climate change. A changing climate will see not only higher temperatures but a longer monsoon season and increased droughts. This is already apparent, with it estimated that half of the region’s population, 750 million, have experienced one or more climate-related disasters over the past 20 years.

Afghanistan has suffered through a two-year drought, a leading factor in the food insecurity the population is currently facing. Cyclone Amphan, one of the largest recorded, displaced almost 5 million people in India and Bangladesh in 2020. Rising sea levels in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka has resulted in an increase in flash floods and storm surges. For Bangladesh this is a major concern, with two-thirds of the country being less than 5 meters above sea level.

Climate change has the potential to create a dire humanitarian crisis in the region, with millions displaced. A 2018 World Bank study predicted a worst-case scenario of 40 million climate migrants in South Asia by 2050. This would burden the region’s already overpopulated cities and strain food, water and power supplies. 

Migration across borders could see increased regional tensions or communal violence, seen previously when Indian authorities shot Bangladeshi migrants after erecting a border wall in the 2000s and attacks on Rohingya refugees entering Bangladesh or attempting to leave flooded Bangladeshi refugee camps. 

For the people who cannot flee, climate change is likely to cause acute food and water insecurity and climate displacement events, leading to lives lost, homes destroyed and an increase in violence. The current situation in Sri Lanka shows that political instability occurs when populations are denied access to basic goods, such as food, fuel and heath supplies.

What must be done

With regional stability at risk, South Asian countries need to address climate change quickly, and this can be accomplished in a number of ways. 

First, adapting to climate change has been a reality for the region for some time, and this needs to continue at pace. Bangladesh has already rehabilitated more than 700 kilometers of sea embankments to protect against storm and tidal surges and has built more than a thousand cyclone shelters.

Sri Lanka has rehabilitated Colombo’s wetlands to help prevent flooding and has built several urban infrastructure projects for adaptation purposes.

But regionally the pace of this work is either too slow or marred with delays or corruption. 

For this reason, international cooperation and funding are required, particularly for the poorer countries of the region. In a positive step, the World Bank has financed between US$1.4 billion in 2017 to $3.7 billion in 2021 for climate adaptation and mitigation in the region. Funding initiatives such as this need to continue to enable poorer countries in the region to continue to rollout adaptation infrastructure in threatened areas. 

Under the Paris Climate Agreement, developed countries are obligated under the “global goal on adaptation” to help developing countries strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability. Therefore, the international community clearly has a role to play in providing adequate funding for adaptation projects in vulnerable regions, including South Asia. This would go a long way in enabled the region to adapt to climate change quickly.

Second, the region needs to meet its commitments reducing carbon emissions. While the region is traditionally a low emitter, India is the outlier and has been reliant on coal to power its development for some time. While India has begun to transition to renewables and has set an ambitious target, coal generation is still on track to make up around half of its energy mix by 2040. 

With its neighbors’ low emissions by comparison, India has an obligation to decarbonize aggressively while continuing to lift its citizens out of poverty. This is by no means an easy task, but can be achieved through ongoing advances in renewable energy and utilizing the country’s economic growth to development sustainably. 

Third, South Asian countries need to plan for climate-induced migration. Domestically, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have already planned for this eventuality.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission in India has provided $10 billion to sixty cities for infrastructure upgrades to increase capacity to absorb climate migrants.

Pakistan’s climate policy is addressing urban migration and national food security for a changing climate and Bangladesh has a national strategy in place that aims to tackle climate-induced internal displacement.

These are proactive steps that can prepare South Asian countries for a future where climate displacement will be a reality. 

Regarding cross-border migration, the best solution is for the region to work together to plan for the eventuality of regional migration flows so an orderly pathway can be in place when displacement events occur. However, whether this can be achieved in a region already full of geopolitical tension remains to be seen.

Climate change isn’t a new phenomenon for South Asia, and it will remain on the front lines of its effects for decades to come. The region needs to take advantage of its experience dealing with extreme weather events to form ambitious adaptation and mitigation policies to minimise the effects of climate change while continuing to develop their economies and lift communities out of poverty.

Failing to do this will put millions of lives at risk. 

Chris Fitzgerald

Chris Fitzgerald is a freelance correspondent based in Melbourne who writes for a number of online publications on politics, human rights and international law. He is also senior correspondent for South Asia for the Organization for World Peace. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisFitzMelb.